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Cisco DNA Center: Intent-based Networking, Automation, and Job Satisfaction


October 29, 2018 - 0 Comments

If you could change anything about network management, what would it be? Having been both a network project manager and program manager at Cisco, I’ve given this a lot of thought. We already have great tools for zero-touch deployment, software image management, and fabric management. What could be better? One improvement would be automating tasks that don’t require deep engineering oversight. The other would be having a single pane of glass instead of context switching between different applications.

We’re on our way to seeing both of my wishes come true as we start using DNA Center for intent-based networking. Cisco IT is “customer zero” for DNA Center, which means we try out new features before they’re available to customers. The product you get reflects our feature requests, interface suggestions, and bug reports. You can read about our first production use cases for DNA Center—software-development and wireless assurance—in an upcoming article.

The joys of automation

Even in the early stages of our DNA Center pilots, we’re seeing automation reduce errors, make configuration more consistent, and speed up new device provisioning and software upgrades. Take device provisioning, for instance. We regularly refresh our 15,000 devices through our fleet program. Provisioning a new device takes 30-50 steps, which can take 2-3 hours. Until now, our engineers had to click between multiple interfaces to provision, constantly checking to make sure the last step didn’t break anything. DNA Center automates almost all of the provisioning steps. The obvious value of automation is fewer errors. Most network-related outages can be traced back to network changes—many of those because someone made a mistake.

Happier engineers

But the value of automation goes beyond error reduction. The hidden value is that our engineers can apply their talents to solving real issues instead of correcting typos in the config file. Automating the minutia of network provisioning gives us more time for tasks that require a human—like innovation and solving major issues.

And yes, humans are still needed! I think most network engineers have a bit of fear that automation will replace their job, even though they’ve seen that compute and storage engineers are still hard at work despite automated provisioning. Intent-based networking doesn’t take the human out of the equation. It just saves us from having to work on repetitive minutia that we’ve already done 1000 times. IT directors want to make sure their engineers have interesting work, and an effective way to do that is to automate repetitive tasks. DNA Center is one more way we’re doing that, along with Cisco Network Services Orchestrator (NSO), and Meraki.

One interface for all of our network management tools

DNA Center is also solving another one of our longstanding challenges, which is integrating our third-party solutions and services behind one interface. If you use 10-15 systems for management, as we do, how can you get them to talk to each other? DNA Center provides a significant set of APIs for integrating with other systems—the foundation for realizing the single pane of glass. Our first integration is with ServiceNow, our IT service management tool.

What are your plans for intent-based networking? Please share them in the comment box below.

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